Big 12

Blair Kerkhoff's Big 12 report (Feb. 8)

THE BATTLE FOR THIRD

In years past, Big 12 teams have finished the season with a winning conference record and missed out on the NCAA Tournament.

That's unlikely to happen this season.

Never before has a 9-7 record been so coveted in these parts. Not only will it likely be good enough to get any Big 12 team into the Big Dance, it could give them a first-round bye in the conference tournament and land them a third-place league finish.

With Texas and Kansas turning the race for a regular-season conference championship into a two-team affair, the rest of the Big 12 has become overrun with parity. At the moment, one game separates seven teams in the loss column. Baylor is alone in third at 5-4. But Kansas State, Texas A&M, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Missouri could overtake the Bears by the end of the week.

That has given renewed hope to struggling teams such as K-State and Oklahoma State, and a newfound sense of urgency to once-surging teams Texas A&M and Missouri.

There's plenty still up for grabs in the Big 12 standings, and the next few games could be pivotal.

"With the jumble there in the middle of the league, this is separation week," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.

Since the Big 12 was formed, no team with a 9-7 record has finished better than fourth. This season, that's quickly become the goal for a number of teams.

HEARTBREAK IN AMES

If you're looking for a team that can compete in the Big 12, look no further than Iowa State. But if you're looking for a team that can win in the Big 12, well, look somewhere else. Despite being in position to win just about every game they have played this season, the Cyclones keep losing heartbreakers. Iowa State's amazing futility in close games continued over the weekend in an 86-85 loss to Kansas State. Five of its eight conference losses have come by fewer than five points or in overtime. In his first year, coach Fred Hoiberg is starting to receive sympathy from his peers.

"As much as I enjoyed us winning, because we needed a road win, it broke my heart," K-State coach Frank Martin said. "They've just not been able to close out games."

BACK ON TRACK?

Experts have been quick to label K-State and Baylor as two of the most disappointing teams in college basketball. After starting the season highly ranked and falling completely out of the national polls, it's easy to see why. But both teams are showing signs of resurgence. The Wildcats have won three of their last four and the Bears just won at Texas A&M, giving them their first win over a ranked opponent. Neither team will finish the year in the top 15, as originally predicted, but if both continue playing well they will make the NCAA Tournament.

THE OTHER BROTHER

Kansas' Marcus Morris gets most of the attention, but brother Markieff is putting together quite a season himself. The junior currently leads the Big 12 in rebounding (8.5) and has eight double-doubles.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Kansas State's Jacob Pullen. The senior guard hasn't lived up his preseason billing, but his late-game heroics may have saved his team's season at Iowa State. By scoring K-State's final eight points, he led the Wildcats to a come-from-behind victory at Hilton Coliseum and greatly improved their NCAA Tournament chances.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Texas at Oklahoma, 8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN2. This could be the Longhorns' toughest remaining test. The Sooners are playing good basketball at the moment.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Texas (20-3, 8-0) _ Unstoppable?

2. Kansas (23-1, 8-1) _ Jayhawks hitting their stride

3. Baylor (15-7, 5-4) _ Third by default

4. Texas A&M (17-5, 4-4) _ Special season has turned ordinary

5. Missouri (18-6, 4-5) _ Winning at home isn't enough

6. Kansas State (16-8, 4-5) _ Could still finish third

7. Colorado (15-9, 4-5) _ Time to make a move

8. Oklahoma State (16-7, 4-5) _ Hard to believe Cowboys are on the bubble

9. Oklahoma (12-10, 4-4) _ Sooners need to give Texas a game

10. Texas Tech (11-13, 3-6) _ Kansas and Texas in the same week? Ouch

11. Nebraska (15-7, 3-5) _ Same ol' Cornhuskers

12. Iowa State (14-10, 1-8) _ Can't catch a break

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